Having A Spot of Tea With George Orwell?

A few years back, after I’d just finished teaching George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a student came to me after class and asked why I hadn’t spent more time talking about the author’s politics. When I inquired as to what she thought I’d missed, she said I’d left her with the distinct impression that George Orwell had been a Democrat. And that, she added, was not true.

After asking a few more questions, I figured out that what my student had actually meant when she said “Democrat” was “socialist.” So I pointed out that Orwell had not been a Democrat–not with a large American “D,” anyway–but he had indeed been a socialist, and an unabashed one, at that.

To this day, I don’t think she believed me.

The truth is I try to stay away from any politics in my literature classes, except for situations where it’s especially relevant to the works we’re studying. For one thing, my degrees are in English, not Political Science, and for another, the older I get and the more I try to discern any truth, the more difficult I find it to get excited about anything political. If you listen closely, they all seem to be lying most of the time.

The thing about Orwell, though, is that the main character in Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty-Four (and much of his nonfiction) is language. At one time or another, the poor thing is warped, trampled, twisted, repurposed, ripped to shreds, forgotten, or ignored–all of which I can’t stay away from. And when the classroom conversation turns to language, politics can’t be far away, or at least that’s the way it seems.

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Here’s a thought-provoking piece from Darryl Campbell at The Millions on what he considers to be the misinterpretations and often downright misunderstandings about Orwell’s works, especially Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty-Four. He points to the ease with which people find “the shades of totalitarianism and organized lying” all around, bandying Orwell’s name about in various ways: looking to Animal Farm as proof of why socialism won’t work, asserting that universal healthcare would make Orwell turn over in his grave, even plastering his name on Tea Party billboards and signs. This is particularly relevant due to the nature of what Orwell was writing about–abuse of language and the dangers of a naive populace.

Make no mistake, though. The Tea Party may be the poster child today, or even Republicans at large, but all you need to do to see it in action is turn on the news–any news–and wait. Trust me, it won’t take long.

Here’s one of my favorite Orwell quotes, from his essay “Politics and the English Language”:

“Political language. . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Oh, wait a minute–looks like I did a little convenient editing there. That’s the way I’ve often seen the quote reproduced; here’s the way it reads in the original (emphasis added):

“Political language–and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists–is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

There, that’s better.


  1. // Reply

    It is very difficult to impart meaning to students who have such nebulous understanding attached to the words they hear used all the time. I often enjoy the initial challenge but find they don’t really want to work that hard, so they quit listening about the third big word they don’t know.

  2. // Reply

    Was that first quote edited/propagated by Mr. Breitbart?

    1. // Reply

      I wouldn’t doubt it. I often tell my students “If you one set of ellipses, be skeptical–if you see more, someone is probably hiding something.”

  3. // Reply

    Back in the spring I read Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London” and “The Road to Wigan Pier.” In the latter, there’s a section that takes some leftists to task. While Orwell was in Spain, the publisher added a preface intended to keep the audience from being put off by Orwell’s candor.

    1. // Reply

      That’s what I’ve always liked about Orwell. Partisans, including those close to him, found him hard to categorize–mostly because criticized hypocrisy where and when he saw it.

      Ironically, I think that’s one of the reasons so many uber-conservatives quote him so often these days.

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